It is all very well asking the question ‘’Do I have parental responsibility for my child?’’ but it is equally important to understand what parental responsibility means and what you can and can’t do with it. In this blog we look at what parental responsibility is, who does and doesn’t have parental responsibility, what you need to do if you want parental responsibility and we answer frequently asked questions on the topic of parental responsibility.
What does parental responsibility mean?
Parental responsibility is a legal concept. That means you can be a responsible parent and not have parental responsibility for your child.
The definition of the legal concept of parental responsibility is contained in Section 3(1) of the Children Act 1989. The Act defines parental responsibility:
“The rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property”.
In practical terms, parental responsibility gives a parent the responsibility for making significant decisions in a child’s life.
Examples of the exercise of parental responsibility
Parents exercise parental responsibility for their children all the time, without even thinking about it. However there are some significant decisions involving the welfare of a child that parents can struggle to agree on. For example:
- The name of the child
- If the child should follow a religious belief and, if so, if the child should be baptised or circumcised
- If the child should have contact with family members you are estranged from, for example, grandparents or an aunt
- If the child should be immunised or vaccinated
- If the child should go on overseas school trips
- If the child should follow a strict diet such as gluten free, vegan ,vegetarian or sugar free diet
- If the child should be home educated or go to a local state school or be placed in private education
- The type of schooling or extra tuition that best meets a child’s needs if the child is gifted or has special educational needs.
There are many other examples of parental responsibility decisions. Some, whilst relatively insignificant, may be of immense importance to you, such as the length of your child’s hair or at what age your child is allowed to have an ear piercing or have their own mobile phone.
What happens if you can’t agree on parenting decisions and parental responsibility?
If two parents have parental responsibility and can’t agree on how to exercise parental responsibility then either parent can apply to court for a specific issue order but courts recommend that:
- Parents try to discuss parenting and reach a compromise that they can both accept
- Parents try family mediation if they can’t reach an agreement to see if a neutral family mediator can help them reach an agreement
- Court proceedings are used as a last resort.
What to do next?
If you are worried about your child because you think that your former partner’s alcohol or substance use is affecting their relationship and contact is having an adverse effect on your child then before you stop or change contact it is best to take legal advice from a children law solicitor and professional advice. Speaking to someone else can help you come to a balanced view on whether an application for a child arrangements order is in your child’s best interests and your alternative options.
If you are a parent who has had allegations of drug or alcohol abuse made against you then the best advice is to take legal advice. That is because the first thing many parents do is deny there is a problem. Sometimes there isn’t a problem. However, if there is an issue with alcohol consumption, then denying that the problem exists makes it more likely that the court will make a child arrangements order that you are unhappy with whereas that outcome can potentially be avoided through cooperation and representation.
How does an unmarried father get parental responsibility for his child?
An unmarried father can get parental responsibility in one of three ways:
- By agreement with the child’s mother or
- Jointly registering the birth and being named on the birth certificate or
- Obtaining a parental responsibility order from the court.
Can I prepare a parental responsibility agreement?
To secure parental responsibility for your child you have to sign a formal parental responsibility agreement document in a prescribed form. The form has to be witnessed. If you don’t use the correct forms or if you don’t get the agreement witnessed in accordance with the rules then the agreement won’t be effective in giving you parental responsibility.
Does a father lose parental responsibility for a child if he gets divorced?
A father doesn’t lose parental responsibility for his child if he separates or gets divorced from the child’s mother.
A father can only lose parental responsibility by court order once he has obtained it. It is rare for a court to order that a father should lose his parental responsibility.
Can a father have contact with a child without having parental responsibility?
A father can have contact with his child if he is separated from the child’s mother without first having to obtain parental responsibility for the child. If the mother won’t agree to a father having parental responsibility and contact the father can make an application to court for a parental responsibility order and a child arrangements order.
A child arrangements order sets out where a child lives and the contact arrangements. The court will make orders that it thinks are in the child’s best interests.
Does a father have to pay child support if he is not named on the birth certificate and doesn’t have parental responsibility?
A parent’s legal obligation to pay child support for their child is based on their biological relationship. Therefore a biological father has to pay child support if he is assessed as liable to do so by the Child Maintenance Service, even if he is not named on the birth certificate, doesn’t have parental responsibility, and doesn’t see the child.
In situations where paternity is disputed the Child Maintenance Service can ask for DNA testing to be undertaken and the court can order relationship testing.
Does a mother with automatic parental responsibility for a child have more authority and rights than an unmarried father who secures parental responsibility?
Sometimes being a parent can feel a bit competitive; whether it is you that your child cries for when they have fallen or you that they ask to read them a bed time story. When it comes to parental responsibility many unmarried fathers assume that their parental responsibility isn’t ‘’as good as a mother’s parental responsibility’’ because there parental responsibility was acquired through:
- Being named on the birth certificate or
- Parental responsibility agreement or
- Parental responsibility court order.
An assumption is therefore made by one or both parents that the father’s rights and responsibilities are somehow less important than the mother’s parental responsibility and that:
- A mother has more rights than a father
- A mother will always get custody if there is a dispute
- A mother has the responsibility to sort out child care if neither parent is available to look after the child
- If you can’t agree on an important decision in your child’s life the mother’s parental responsibility takes precedence giving her the power to make the decision.
None of those assumptions are correct. If you share parental responsibility with another person you have equal rights and responsibilities for the child. The child’s mother does not have the casting vote or the ability to make all the decisions. If you can’t reach agreement about what is in your child’s best interests then the court can make a specific issue order. The court will make a specific issue order decision based on what the judge thinks is in a child’s best interests.
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Will the court always make a parental responsibility order?
A father can apply for a parental responsibility order as a separate stand-alone application or at the same time as applying for a child arrangements order (an order sorting out custody or contact).
The court won’t automatically make a parental responsibility order but the test or threshold to secure a parental responsibility order is fairly low so in most cases the court will grant parental responsibility.
When deciding whether to make a parental responsibility order the court considers:
- The degree of commitment shown by the father
- The degree of attachment between father and child
- The father’s reasons for applying for a parental responsibility order.
If I have parental responsibility can I take my child abroad on holiday?
If you are a parent with parental responsibility for your child you can’t take your child abroad on holiday unless:
- You have the agreement of everyone else with parental responsibility for your child or
- You have a child arrangements order and you are named as the main carer in the child arrangements order. If you have this type of child arrangements order then you can take your child overseas for up to four weeks without needing the other parent’s agreement or a court order
- You have an order from the court giving you permission to go on the specific holiday or a general order saying that you can take your child overseas on a set number of times each year.
If you are not sure whether the wording of your child arrangements order gives you permission to take your child overseas on holiday it is best to take legal advice before booking the holiday.
Can my child’s surname be changed if I have parental responsibility for my child?
If you have parental responsibility for your child then your child’s surname should not be changed without your written agreement or a court order.
Is a court application for parental responsibility worth it?
Most children law solicitors would encourage you to secure parental responsibility by agreement with the child’s mother. If a mother takes legal advice the likelihood is that she will be advised that it is probable that the court will make a parental responsibility order. She may therefore agree to your acquiring parental responsibility by agreement and without making a court application.
If a mother won’t agree to you having parental responsibility for your child then you may think that you have no option but to make an application for a parental responsibility order because you think that until you secure parental responsibility the child’s mother won’t accept that you have any say in the important decisions affecting your child. However, if you have separated amicably and you are co-parenting your child, you make think that parental responsibility won’t really add anything for you or your child. It is always best to have parental responsibility and, in those circumstances, you should be able to obtain parental responsibility by agreement through completing the prescribed form for parental responsibility.
Parental Responsibility Solicitors
For legal assistance with parental responsibility, child custody or contact or applying for a parental responsibility order, child arrangements order, or specific issue order contact the specialist Cheshire and Manchester children law solicitors at Evolve Family Law. Call us or complete our online enquiry form.